Monday, July 26, 2010

Is teaching work? Is learning?

I don't mean to be asking nonsensical questions here, but the more I think about what work means the more I wonder whether teaching and learning, as we usually practice them, are work.  Here is what I mean.

By one standard both teaching and learning are work--people get paid to teach (and receipt of pay is one measure of work in capitalism); people put in substantial effort to learn (and the application of effort to a challenge is another measure of work).  Work is happening.

But there is uncertainty about teaching, learning, and work in society.  Take for example those people who teach on the side because they simply love to teach.  Ask them if teaching is work, and they are likely to say no, that teaching is a pleasure, and therefore not work (dissatisfaction with the effort being another sign that something is work rather than, say, leisure).  Or ask the critics of schools of education if teaching is work, and they are likely to deny it, suggesting that developing content knowledge is real work; while pedagogy is merely an effort to gussy up a natural human skills with a scientific patina, or to indoctrinate students with "progressive ideologies".

Learning is equally suspect.  Our system of education traditionally puts learning before employment, or put another way, before work. And the opportunity to learn is sometimes sequestered from work.  Students leave school because they have to work to afford it.

Why does this matter?  Because uncertainty about the status of teaching and learning impedes our ability to know if they are happening, and happening well.  For example, if teaching is essentially a pleasure for the teacher, then how do we judge its value?  What would allow us to say that a four-hour lecture is less effective than four hours spent otherwise?  Or if learning is work because it is essentially effort, then why bother to have such a thing as a class?  Why not just give students tasks and wish them well?

At the risk of sounding like a fan, I want to suggest that Shop Class as Soulcraft has a lot to teach about the ways in which teaching and learning are work.  The most intriguing to me is the notion that work has a particular telos--an end to which it points.  In the case of motorcycle repair it is to get the bike running as if it were new--to "fill the measure of its creation" to borrow a phrase from my religious tradition. (For a great poem on this notion read Zbigniew's Herbert's "Pebble."
                     by Zbigniew Herbert
                     The pebble
                     is a perfect creature
                     equal to itself
                     mindful of its limits
                     filled exactly
                     with a pebbly meaning
                     with a scent that does not remind one of anything
                     does not frighten anything away does not arouse desire
                     its ardour and coldness
                     are just and full of dignity
                     I feel a heavy remorse
                     when I hold it in my hand
                     and its noble body
                     is permeated by false warmth
                      - Pebbles cannot be tamed
                      to the end they will look at us
                      with a calm and very clear eye
                                       Translated by Peter Dale Scott and Czeslaw Milosz
Now I know that essentialism has been on the outs in academe for a long time.  But many people, including academics, point to experiences where they felt that they had discovered a bit of their essences as human beings--the characteristics that make them who they are at this time.  And it seems to me that if we want to understand teaching and learning as work then we need to attend to those moments where teacher and learner together come across experiences where they jointly discover bits of who they are and truths about how the world works.  To push a bit further, I want to suggest that neither teaching nor learning can achieve their teleologies without the other.

Mark those moments that seem like the times when understanding has emerged. ;If Crawford is right in Shop Class then they are the rare moments when work happens.  The rest of the time we might be engaged in labor, or effort, or struggle, or leisure, but we haven't yet done any work.

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